Magna Charta III: To Runnymede and Beyond

Originally posted by mirrim on 10/06/06

This is the third of my Introduction to Magna Charta diaries originally posted at My Left Wing. As before, I have revised and added a bit, smoothing out some rough edges (I hope!) and making a few matters clearer. My previous diaries on this topic can be found (here at PH).

So what happened to turn grumbling and dislike of John’s policies into open rebellion?

In 1210, having been excommunicated the November before, John took his army to Ireland. Several of the great Anglo-Norman lords there had been acting, well, like typical Anglo-Norman lords, and needed reminding that they were, after all, subjects of the king. (For once it was not the native Irish causing trouble.) John had no trouble fielding an army for Ireland of English knights and Flemish mercenaries since they expected an easy time, with plunder, and despite his nickname of “Softsword” (given to him later by the chroniclers for his loss of Normandy), in two months’ time he chased down and defeated in battle, and exiled, the worst offenders. (The oldest part of Dublin Castle was started during this campaign on his orders.)  On his return home, he found the Welsh princes—mostly his son-in-law, Llewellyn ap Iorwerth—getting restive, and the following year, after an unpromising start, he and the army he had gathered for the occasion chased Llewellyn down. Then his neighbor to the north, William the Lion of Scotland, asked his aid in putting down a claimant to his throne, and swore fealty to John in return (thus setting up the next four hundred years of English kings claiming Scotland and the Scots resisting, until James VI of Scotland became James I of England—but that is several other stories). By early 1212, then, Ireland, Wales, and Scotland seemed quiet. In John’s mind, it was time to tackle the problem of his lost French possessions again.

Out went the letters, summoning the knights to service. This was the third summer in a row, and the summons was for a prolonged campaign, not the relatively brief ones of the previous two summers. As usual, John also raised money by amercements, money assessed by a lord, or the courts, as punishment for various, usually minor, infractions of the law. An amercement was “at the mercy” of the court, or in this case, the king. (The term “fine” in those days referred to a sum paid to gain access to a privilege or avoid an onerous duty, such as following the king to war.)  More importantly, there were justices sent out to discover—and set amercements for—violations of Forest Law, which were laws which applied to great swathes of land, not all of it wooded, which had been declared “forest” by John or his predecessors. Basically, these were lands that the king claimed as his personal hunting territory, and despite the name, quite a bit of it was actually cultivated. That that different “Forest” law, with many unusual details, was enforced in these areas, and that Forest lands had been greatly expanded by John and his predecessors, were sore points with everybody. John’s use of Forest Law as a cash cow didn’t help. John’s plans for a French campaign were put on hold when Llewellyn revolted again (whereupon John hanged the hostages he had demanded from Llewellyn the previous year), and then were abandoned for that summer when rumor apparently reached the king of a conspiracy to assassinate him, headed by two barons, Robert FitzWalter and Eustace de Vesci, whose initial grievances against him are obscure. We don’t know if they were noble Norman thugs who would have made trouble no matter who the king was, were reacting to the general grievances, or had specific complaints (though de Vesci may have been the noble in the incident about John’s reputation as a lecher I mentioned in the first installment, who substituted a commoner in the king’s bed in place of de Vesci’s wife). Our sources here are administrative writs and chroniclers, and while some chroniclers were good solid historians, all were churchmen, often writing far from the scene, and the quality and detail are very uneven. The chronicler for the last part of John’s reign is one of the better ones, but even he spends little time on motivations or details:

Then King John’s heart was troubled, since it was being said, without authority, that rumors had been heard that the barons who had gathered together were conspiring against him, and that in many ears there were tales of letters [from the Pope—mirrim] absolving the barons from John’s allegiance; it was said that another king should be elected in his place and that John should be expelled from the kingdom. If on the other hand the king captured them, they would suffer death or perpetual imprisonment.
Having announced his return, the king began to have misgivings and would go nowhere without either being armed or accompanied by a great force of armed men. Having taken captive some who seemed to be too intimate with the rebels, he quickly seized the castles of the earls and barons, so that there was unrest for some time. Then the nobles of the country, fearing either the king’s anger or the scruples of conscience, left England secretly. Eustace de Vesci was received in Scotland and Robert FitzWalter departed to the French. Their goods were confiscated…  (from The Plantagenet Chronicles, Elizabeth Hallam, ed.)

  With the worst of the malcontents fled to Scotland, or to Philip in France (who was also hosting several of John’s bishops who had left either because of the Interdict or John’s response), John seems, temporarily at least, to have gotten some sense. He reined in his bureaucrats and justices. He made good faith overtures to William Marshal, who was keeping his remaining fellow barons in Ireland loyal, and who appears to have been the one who first counseled making peace with the Pope, especially since other rumors had Philip of France, with the Pope’s blessing, preparing to invade and depose him. John needed to cut his losses, and fast.

So in 1213, John made his peace with the Pope, though hammering out the details took another year. As part of the settlement with the Pope, de Vesci and FitzWalter were allowed to return, and Stephen Langton finally took his seat as Archbishop of Canterbury. In the meantime, it became clear that Philip was indeed planning an invasion, with the Pope’s blessing or no. John called up the feudal levies for the fourth year in a row, but again the loyal barons and lesser vassals, or at least the ones not overtly in rebellion, didn’t grouse too much: they may have been uncertain that Philip would be an improvement over John. John evidently wasn’t planning on relying on them anyway. Instead, he had been building ships, arguably the forerunner of the Royal Navy, and sent them off under the Earl of Salisbury (John’s half-brother, one of Henry’s bastards) to find Philip’s invasion fleet and destroy it. They caught it at anchor in Flanders, with much of Philip’s army away trying to conquer Flanders for Philip, and destroyed or captured a large portion of it. The threat was gone for the time being, and since it was early in the summer, John planned to keep the army together—and take it to France. At this, even some of the more loyal barons became irritated: they were the ones paying to keep their knights and men-at-arms clothed, fed, and supplied, and it was quite a drain on their finances. They were tired from the previous three summers under arms, their men were tired, and they claimed (inaccurately) that their feudal duty to John did not include service on the Continent. When John put out to sea the barons and their men sat on the shore, giving him the medieval equivalent of “Fuggedaboutit” and “Hell, no.” John must have been furious: the Plantagenet temper, which John had in full measure, was already legendary. Only the intervention of Archbishop Langton prevented John from turning his mercenaries on the recalcitrant then and there.

  John nonetheless (and for the third year in a row!) started preparations for a campaign in France the following year: and called for a scutage at triple, not double, the “customary” rate of his father’s day. The barons were downright resistant to both the ideas, the war and the scutage. They had been under arms and paying their own way the whole time Philip’s invasion threatened. They were tired of fighting in France, and of paying for fighting in France: most of those he called upon refused to go, again claiming that “traditionally” they had not had to serve in France (again, not true). Had the plan been to invade Normandy, where many had had fiefs ten years before, the story might have been different; but John was headed to his other ancestral lands first, to Poitou (from his mother Eleanor) and Anjou (the ancestral lands of the Plantagenet family), where none of them had held lands. They also refused to come up with the cash for their fines and scutage. John went anyway, with an army of mercenaries, in February of 1214, leaving some of his favorite “enforcers” in charge of England. From France in May he demanded the barons pay up; they refused.

  Now, if John had been successful in France, all might have been forgiven on both sides. Initially, he was, bringing several Poitevin and Angevin lords to heel and generally pacifying both provinces; admittedly, the lords may have thought that an overlord in England was preferable to Philip right next door, or that it was best to placate the man with the army on-scene. Then news came to John of the defeat, on the other side of France at Bouvines, of the allies who had been keeping Philip busy and away from Poitou and Anjou. Not John’s fault, but the French lords he had defeated promptly saw which way the wind was blowing and defected back to Philip. By the time a defeated John returned to England in October of 1214, between his demands for money, and the behavior of the henchmen (most of whom were not native Englishmen) he had left in charge in England, resentment had progressed to open defiance on the part of many.

A lot of the details of what happened next really aren’t available: again, our sources are limited, many were written long after the facts, and the ones that weren’t can be contradictory. Since 1213 there had been some discussion among the powerful in England about presenting the king with a possible charter of liberties. We know this due to an obscure document found in the French archives in the 1800s which mentions John by name and refers to some matters which were a problem in 1213 but less so in 1215 (and didn’t make it into Magna Charta; other matters in the same document did). The chroniclers tell of the barons’ demands to John to restore the good laws of King Edward the Confessor’s day (interesting, because that would have meant restoring the old pre-Norman law code based on Alfred the Great’s, but nothing came of this), and then of a charter of Henry I, William the Conqueror’s son, never really enforced, but providing a useful precedent for a general charter of liberties given by a king, as opposed to a charter for a specific place such as a town. While the chroniclers imply that the entire baronage was opposed to John, it seems that the barons were, unofficially at least, splitting into three groups. One group eventually called itself the Army of God; these were the out and out rebels, led by FitzWalter and de Vesci. A second group was that of the barons who remained loyal to the king; though slightly smaller than the first, this one included most of the most powerful men in England. Its leader was our old friend William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, Lord of Leinster and Justiciar (governor) of Ireland. It may have been a matter of honor, of keeping of oaths, for Pembroke and the others, but there is no doubt that the presence of a man who had Marshal’s reputation as a man of honor, as a competent administrator, and still (though probably pushing seventy) a man to be reckoned with in battle, may have induced some others not to join the rebels, but to remain among the moderates. This was still an era in which honor, and the keeping of one’s oath, were acceptable political motives. (Many families actually covered their bets: the actual baron, who had given his oath of fealty, stayed with the king, and his son or a younger son, who had taken no oath of fealty, held no land and thus had less to lose, went with the rebels. The younger William Marshal, son of the great Earl, was with the rebels.) The moderates waiting to see what would happen were the largest group: and apparently among its leaders, and a major contributor to the document we know, was Stephen Langton.

The legend is that it was Langton who first brought the charter of Henry I to the barons’ attention. Great story, but probably not true: the rebels, the moderates, and the king’s party all had those within their number who were versed in law and precedent. What he may have done is point out to them its importance as precedent. It is also clear that the document we have shows the hand of someone who was used to thinking in more catholic, universal terms than the barons in one important point: some matters in the 1213 draft charter which mention only “barons”, in the final Magna Charta are rights claimed for “free men”. In addition, it seems to have been Langton and the moderates who kept negotiations going when one side or the other threatened to quit talking: amazingly, that appears to have been more frequently the rebels rather than the king. John played for time, took vows as a crusader (which was always a good move for delaying things a king didn’t want to deal with), held off on concessions until he could get “guidance” from the Pope, and called in mercenaries as a threat (Langton called his bluff on that one, making him send them back), but, via William Marshal, never stopped discussing things with Langton and the moderates. The rebels evidently tried as hard as they could to get John to lose his temper and move against them with an army. Finally in early May they made demands the king rejected outright, renounced their oaths of fealty (making open warfare against the king “legal”) and then proceeded to besiege one of John’s castles. For once, the legendary Plantagenet temper held. John managed to bring to his side some of the moderates and a few of the rebels by being conciliatory and offering arbitration to settle grievances. Then the rebels, with the help of the townsfolk, took London in mid-May 1215. Then as now, London was the premier city of England, the trade and financial capital. The king did not want to attack the city, and the rebels didn’t really have the strength to do much more than hold it. Langton and the moderates got busy during the standoff.

A bit more than three weeks later, on the 10th of June, the king came to the meadow called Runnymede, “between Windsor and Staines”, to meet with the leaders of the moderates. The rough draft document, “The Articles of the Barons”, survives, and was sent to the rebels after the king’s approval. On June 15th, they joined the others at Runnymede, and an agreement was reached. While that is the traditional date for the document’s signing, it may have taken a few more days for the Chancery Office to get it into final form, copied, signed and seal affixed; and then given to the rebels as they renewed their allegiance to the king on June 19th. Four originals still survive: two in the British Library, one in Lincoln Cathedral (the copy I saw on the “Magna Charta to the Constitution” tour in 1987), one in Salisbury Cathedral.

And what of the legend of the signing, of the king sitting with few or no supporters in the tent at Runnymede, surrounded by hostile barons with their hands on their swords, forced to set his hand to the parchment, then falling to the ground in a rage and chewing bits of wood in his fury? Well, it’s a great story; but it probably never happened. The whole affair seems to have been fairly politely handled, and in fact, as I said, the final signing and sealing of the document may have had to wait until the Chancery Office got the terms into proper legal shape a few days later. John had no need for fury: he was already plotting to get the whole thing thrown out by an appeal to his “overlord” the Pope, on the grounds that it had been extorted from him and signed under duress, and that the people demanding it were in rebellion against their lawful overlord—which put them in rebellion against the Pope. The story may have originated in its one known source: Holinshed’s Chronicles, a compendium of English history, written in the 1500s (so 300 years after these doings, and much longer for some of its matter), and not before. Holinshed is, alas, not reliable, either because he relied on sensationalistic and poor sources, or because he just couldn’t resist making up a good story. He was, for instance, also the source for Shakespeare’s portrayal of the historical Scottish king MacBeth (which play makes Braveheart look like a history lesson). Here is his version (not rendered into modern English. It’s basically Shakepearean-era, don’t panic):

Great rejoicing was made for this conclusion of peace betwixt the king and his barons, the people, knowing that God had touched the king’s heart, and mollified it, whereby happie daies were come for the realme of England, as though it had been delivered out of the bondage of Aegypt: but they were much deceived, for the king, having condescended to make such grant of liberties, farre contrarie to his mind, was right sorowfulle in his heart, cursed his mother that bare him, the hour that he was borne, and the paps that gave him sucke, wishing that he had received death by violence of sword or knife, instead of naturall nourishment: he whetted his teeth, he did bite now on one staffe and now on an other as he walked, and oft brake the same in peeces when he had done, and with such disordered behavior and furious gestures he uttered his greefe, in such sort that the Noble men verie well perceived the inclination of his inward affection concerning these things, before the breaking up of the councell, and therefore sore lamented the state of the realme, gessing what would follow of his impatiencie, and displeasant taking of the matter.

Now, the picture of John in a towering rage is a great one, and accords well with our knowledge of the Plantagenet temper which John had in full measure, no less than his father Henry and brother Richard, both of whom could terrify anyone short of William Marshal when they were in full rant. But compare this to the Barnwell chronicler, a contemporary source:

Having agreed upon a place where the parties could conveniently gather, after many deliberations they made peace with the king, and he gave to them all that they wanted, and confirmed it in his charter. (Plantagenet Chronicles)

How long did the charter remain in force? Initially, about ten weeks: just enough time for messengers on fast horses to get to Rome and back with Pope Innocent’s condemnation of the whole deal. Some of the extremist barons didn’t want peace, either. While many of the complaints and grievances were addressed, by the end of September, with Langton on his way to plead the barons’ case to the Pope, the Pope’s letter condemning the charter arrived in England; and John was again putting together an army of continental mercenaries to fight the remaining rebels, who were themselves negotiating with Philip to come over and help them depose John. The fighting began in December of 1215, and continued through the summer of 1216, with as many as two-thirds of the barons at one point in opposition to John (and Philip having sent over a small force to assist them). John was in fact on campaign still in October of 1216 and more than holding his own when he was taken ill and died.

Three things happened almost immediately. The rebels laid down their arms; they had no quarrel with John’s nine-year-old son Henry III, and at any rate many of the worst hotheads, like de Vesci, had been killed by this time. Then they told Philip that his aid was no longer required, sending his son Louis, the commander of Philip’s “loaner” force, and his men home. Last, and most importantly, the elderly (now probably over seventy), still highly respected William Marshal was named Regent for England and the young king’s guardian. On November 11, 1216, with a few modifications and omissions, Marshal reissued the Charter in the young king’s name, and he did so again in 1217. In 1225 the young King Henry, still not of age and under regency, reissued it, again with some omissions and changes. Its status remained somewhat uncertain (since nothing done during a king’s minority became permanent until he reconfirmed it after coming of age) until Henry, now ten years adult, reconfirmed it in 1237.

  Subsequent kings did the same (usually because their subjects refused to consider granting a tax until they did—a situation set up by one of the provisions of Magna Charta, as will be shown in the analysis) until the Charter of Runnymede, The Great Charter, became engrained in the English psyche as the basis for their civil rights, whether they ever really read the text or not. As such, it was used in attempting to rein in the “divine right of kings” espoused by the Stuarts, via the Petition of Right prior to the English Civil War and the beheading of Charles I, in establishing Habeas Corpus during Charles II’s reign, and all the other various and sundry Acts of Parliament—itself arising from Magna Charta—which taken together are the British Constitution. And of course, a group of disgruntled and rebellious colonists, while never referring to it by name in the documents they produced, used what they felt to be its basic principles freely in both 1776 and 1787.

(Just in case you’re interested: The Plantagenet Chronicles [Elizabeth Hallam, ed.; Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1985], a compendium of excerpts from the chroniclers of the day, is fascinating reading.  The quote from Holinshed is from the 1587 edition, available on-line from the Furness Memorial Library at UPenn. Go (here): it’s lovely to look at, though the font’s a bitch to read, and you can scroll through the whole book; if you scroll down the “Divisions”, John’s reign is in Volume III. Holinshed was a major source for several of Shakespeare’s plays, which explains their historical inaccuracy.)


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